Bud Welch, above, talks about his daughter’s death in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Welch talked about the need for forgiveness in his own healing process and how he chose not to support the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh. Juan Roberto Melendez, below, talks about spending almost 18 years of his life on death row after being wrongfully convicted of murder in Florida.  Randy Gardner talked about his brother’s execution by firing squad for killing an attorney. <br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->The three speakers discussed abolishing the death penalty in the United States during a program for students at Shawe Memorial High school on Tuesday. (Staff photos by Ken Ritchie/ kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Bud Welch, above, talks about his daughter’s death in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Welch talked about the need for forgiveness in his own healing process and how he chose not to support the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh. Juan Roberto Melendez, below, talks about spending almost 18 years of his life on death row after being wrongfully convicted of murder in Florida. Randy Gardner talked about his brother’s execution by firing squad for killing an attorney.

The three speakers discussed abolishing the death penalty in the United States during a program for students at Shawe Memorial High school on Tuesday. (Staff photos by Ken Ritchie/ kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
For 17 years, eight months and one day, Juan Roberto Melendez sat on Florida's death row, praying to be freed.

Melendez, a New York native raised in Puerto Rico, was arrested by the FBI in Pennsylvania on May 2, 1984, on charges of first-degree murder and armed robbery in Florida.

His conviction came, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence connecting him to the murder and he had several alibi witnesses.

Melendez said his trial began on a Monday. He was found guilty on Thursday and was sentenced to death on Friday.

"When I was sentenced, my heart was full of hate," he said. "I was very scared. Very scared to die for a crime I didn't commit."

Melendez, along with Bud Welch and Randy Gardner - two men whose families also have been touched by the death penalty - spoke about their experiences at Shawe Memorial High School on Tuesday.

The men are participants in the Journey of Hope tour, a 25-stop tour of schools and town halls in Indiana and Ohio. The program's goal is to begin a dialogue about abolishing capital punishment in America.

Melendez told the students about his terrible living conditions on death row. The worst part, he said, was knowing the people he was living with, the people that had become his friends over the years, would die. People who had "cried on my shoulders, and I cried on their shoulders."

His conviction and death sentence were overturned after his defense attorney found a taped confession made by the real murderer, a police informant.

A new trial was held and Melendez was found innocent. He was the 99th person in the U.S. to be exonerated on death row and the 34th from Florida.

"I was not saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system. I was saved by the grace of God."

Upon his release, he was given $100 by the state as compensation. He now works as an activist against the death penalty.

"You can rescue an innocent man from a jail cell, but you can never rescue an innocent man from the grave."

Gardner took the podium next. He saw the death penalty from a different perspective. His brother, Ronnie Lee Gardner, was sentenced to death in November 1985, for shooting and killing an attorney. He was executed by a firing squad in June 2010.

"I can never, never condone what my brother did," Gardner said. "But I can't condone the state for doing the same thing."

Gardner said all his brother's execution did was complete the circle of violence.

His niece, he said, tried to commit suicide three times after her father was executed.

"She took enough pills to probably put an elephant to sleep," he said. "She was in a coma for three days."

"She was a stable person before his execution."

Gardner said it wasn't right for the state to turn him into the victim of a death, just as his brother wasn't right in doing that to another family.

"It's not right for anyone to be killed anymore," he said.

The final speaker was Bud Welch.

His daughter, Julie, died in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Federal Building.

Welch said he had always been against the death penalty, until his daughter was killed.

"I didn't even want a trial. I just wanted them fried," he said.

He began abusing alcohol, and for 10 months he visited the site of the attacks every day.

He eventually realized what he was doing, wasn't working.

"You cannot go through the healing process if you're still living with revenge in your heart," he said. "I know. I've tried."

Walsh began traveling the country, talking to people and groups about abolishing the death penalty, and to some people's surprise, not seeking the death penalty against McVeigh or Nichols.

During his travels, Welch said he had a chance to meet with Bill McVeigh, Timothy McVeigh's father, and his sister while he was still incarcerated.

He went to their home in Buffalo, NY. The tearful meeting was a good experience, Walsh said, for all of them.

"It was like this tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders," he said.

When he left the McVeigh home, he said he told them he would do everything he could to stop the pending execution.

Part of the reason Walsh travels as much as he does to speak to groups about capital punishment is because it helps keep his daughter alive, he said.

"But it struck me that Bill McVeigh is never able to tell stories about his son. He will never be able to say publicly anything good about his son."

Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2011.

"Now Bill McVeigh and I have one thing in common," he said. "We have both buried children."

The Journey of Hope tour is continuing with stops across the state through Friday.